Emmanuel's M1 crew on the erg while listening to AdeleDaniel Hilton with permission for Varsity

In my experience there are four cults in Cambridge – some devote their lives to the Chapel choir, some to the student politics, and some to journalism. However, by the far the biggest and most prominent (mostly because those involved never shut up about it) is rowing. With their mystical words like “erg” and “cox” and “crab”, a rowing muggle like me can find it difficult to relate to them; so I took it upon myself to slightly demystify the boat club by relating it to something I know relatively well – music.

The repetitive nature of a lot of the club-style music helped him zone out

To investigate whether the music played in boathouses were bops or flops, I ventured over to the College boat club for the first time (I had previously managed to resist the temptations of the Boathouse Barbeque during freshers’) to watch the 30 rate 20 erg where the rowers go on rowing machines and stroke 20 times within 30 minutes. In true Cambridge fashion, the rowers all arrived slightly late but this did give me the opportunity to have a nosy around the boathouse and check out their sound system which was frankly huge, with the bass being so loud that the wood box I perched on shook almost uncontrollably.

As the rowers began their 30 minutes of misery the first track that appeared was “BILLIE EILISH” by Armani White, perhaps an odd choice for a group of eight guys about to go absolutely crazy on an erg but if it works it works. Following this, the next few songs all followed the same theme of being the sort of high energy, bass heavy music that you would expect the world’s worst DJ to play at MASH, although there were a few tracks that stood out like “Danielle (smile on my face)” by Fred again…Which when paired with the synchronised back-and-forth of the rowers, seemed to mesmerise me for a little while. Speaking to a rower after the erg, he echoed this as he said the repetitive nature of a lot of the club-style music helped him zone out from the pain of such an intense erg and instead focus on the music to keep his arms and legs going.

“You want the music to flow over you”

While the rowers were going at it, I had a chat with Luca, Captain of Boats at Emmanuel Boat Club, who expertly devised the playlist. He said that the main reason he picked this playlist was that there was a strong rhythm in all the songs and echoed how important focusing on the music was during the erg as he said “you want the music to flow over you”. In a move I didn’t expect, Luca also mentioned how he likes to choose pop songs from the 2010s that have iconic and easily recognisable lyrics, the justification for this being that the rowers will sing the song in their heads and focus on the music and lyrics instead of their exhaustion. Further, he also said that remixes feature heavily on his playlist and that he likes to use them because they’re usually much higher energy than the original track but still retain the easily recognisable and sing-along nature of the song. As a self-proclaimed ‘music addict’, Luca took great pride in his choices for the playlist and said that the music truly does play a huge part in these intense training sessions.


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Entering the last five or so minutes of the erg, the rowers’ exhaustion was reaching its peak and so Luca’s secret weapon of Adele remixes was finally deployed and, as much as I was sceptical whether Adele could bring life back into the rowers, I have to admit that it worked incredibly well. A fellow onlooker to the erg was the boat’s cox who, similarly to me, took refuge away from the rowing machines and instead was looking at his laptop at the stroke rate spreadsheets which he said seemed to increase somewhat depending on the hype of the music.

As the erg came to a close, I spoke to some of the recovering rowers about their experience and all agreed that they would have found it incredibly difficult to complete the erg without having the music to focus on, with one saying that he would have undoubtedly finished the erg but would have done so substantially slower. Watching the crew finish this erg, I was reminded of how powerful music can be in all parts of Cambridge life – relaxing music can help us study, sad music can help us get over our Week 5 Blues, and seemingly Adele is the secret weapon that turns the average boat club to being top of the river.